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Deadly protests in rural Peru turn into a referendum on democracy


Weeks after the ouster of a left-wing president, persistent protests and a mounting death toll have exacerbated widespread disillusionment with the country's young democracy.

JULIACA, Peru - Roads blocked with giant rocks and broken glass.

Whole cities shut down for mass protests.

Fifty families mourn their dead.

A new president is requested, a new constitution, a new system of government.

Protesters at a blockade that they built with stones to block the main highway between Arequipa and Juliaca, (Federico Ríos/The New York Times)

Promises to take the fight to Lima, the capital.

Local authorities warn that the country is heading towards



A protest anthem shouted in the streets:

"This democracy is no longer a democracy."

People protest in the streets of Juliaca, Peru, on January 14, 2023. (Federico Ríos/The New York Times)

Instead of fading away, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the removal of the former president have only grown in size and the scope of protesters' demands, paralyzing entire sectors of the country and threatening the efforts of the new president,

Dina Boluarte

, to gain control.

The malaise is now much broader than anger over who rules the country.

On the contrary, it represents deep


with Peru's young democracy, which protesters say has failed to address the huge gap between rich and poor and between Lima and the country's rural areas.

Democracy, they say, has greatly helped a small elite - the political class, the wealthy and business executives - to accumulate

power and wealth,

while providing little benefit to many other Peruvians.

Rather than fizzle out, protests in rural Peru that began more than a month ago over the ouster of the former president have only expanded in size and in the scope of the protesters' demands.

(Federico Rios/The New York Times)

More generally, Peru's crisis reflects an erosion of trust in democracies across Latin America, fueled by states that "violate citizens' rights, fail to provide security or quality public services, and are captured by

powerful interests

. " , according to a new essay published in

The Journal of Democracy.

In Peru, the previous president,

Pedro Castillo

, a leftist, had promised to tackle long-standing problems of poverty and inequality, but was ousted and detained in December after trying to dissolve Congress and rule by decree.

His supporters, most of them in poor rural parts of the country, launched protests, at times burning government buildings, blocking vital highways and occupying airports.

peru nyt

The Peruvian government declared a

state of emergency

and sent security forces into the streets.

Boluarte, who hails from the rural Apurímac region in the south-central part of the country, ran as Castillo's candidate last year and was elected vice president.

But he rejected his former ally's attempt to rule by decree, calling it an authoritarian takeover, and replaced Castillo.

He has since urged unity and, in response to protesters' demands, has called on lawmakers to move up

new elections.

Congress, with many members reluctant to cede power, has blocked that effort, and Boluarte's critics now describe her as a

weak president

working under a self-interested and out-of-the-box legislature.

Protesters use stones to block the main highway between Arequipa and Juliaca.

(Federico Rios/The New York Times)

At first, the demonstrators sought above all the reinstatement of Castillo or the holding of new elections as soon as possible.

Now they want something much bigger:

a new constitution and even, as one poster said, "

refound a new nation".

Since Castillo's removal, at least 50 people have been killed, 49 of them civilians, some shot in the chest, back and head, prompting human rights groups to accuse the army and police of

overusing of force

and firing indiscriminately against the demonstrators.

These deaths have especially affected the southern city of Juliaca, a two-day drive from the capital, among snow-capped mountains and scrub and vicuñas grazing like llamas.

At nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, only 40% of Juliaca's population has running water, many roads are unpaved, and


is the biggest problem at the only public hospital.

Last week, 19 people were killed in a single demonstration, marking the deadliest confrontation between civilians and armed groups in Peru in at least two decades.

Eighteen of the dead were civilians who were shot, according to a local prosecutor.

A police officer was found dead inside a police vehicle that had been set on fire.

The country's interior ministry said officers had responded legally after thousands of protesters tried to occupy the local airport, some with improvised weapons and explosives.

The youngest to die was Brayan Apaza, 15, whose mother, Asunta Jumpiri, 38, described him as an "innocent child" killed after going out to buy food.

At his wake last week, beyond a barricade of burning tires, his supporters carried black flags across their chests as weapons of combat and

vowed to fight

until Boluarte resigned.

"We declare ourselves in a state of insurgency," Orlando Sanga, one of the protest leaders, said outside a union hall used for the vigil.

Nearby, Evangelina Mendoza, dressed in the traditional skirt and jumper worn by the women of the region, said that if Boluarte did not resign, "the south is going to shed blood."

But few investigations into civil unrest and protests in Peru this century have led to convictions, and a new law that removed a requirement that police act proportionally in their response to civilians makes them even more difficult, said Carlos Rivera of the Institute for Legal Defense, a Peruvian non-profit group.

Peru, a nation of 33 million people, the fifth largest in Latin America, returned to democracy just two decades ago, after the authoritarian rule of President

Alberto Fujimori.

But the country's current system, based on a Fujimori-era constitution, is plagued by corruption, impunity and mismanagement, which even members of the government blame on a lack of oversight and a quid pro quo culture.

At the same time, half the population lacks regular access to sufficient nutrition, according to the United Nations, and the country is still recovering from the pandemic, in which Peru suffered the

highest per capita death toll in the world


The intense concentration of ownership of the media, with many of them based in Lima ignoring the protests or highlighting accusations that the protesters are


, has only exacerbated the feeling that the urban elite have colluded against the rural poor.

Trust in Latin American democracies has plummeted over the past two decades, according to the AmericasBarometer, a regional survey conducted by Vanderbilt University.

But in few places the problem is more serious than in Peru, where only 21% of the population says they are satisfied with their democracy, compared to 52% a decade ago.



is worse.

Other countries with particularly low satisfaction levels include

Colombia and Chile

, where large anti-government protests have taken place in recent years, and


where protesters claiming last year's presidential election was rigged stormed the capital this month.

According to Steve Levitsky, a democracy expert at Harvard University, what is saving many Latin American democracies from "total death" is that a viable alternative, such as

Hugo Chávez

's authoritarian socialism in Venezuela, has not yet emerged.

In Juliaca, dozens of people were shot in a confrontation with police last week, and the city's public hospital is full of people recovering from their injuries.

Inside, at the end of many beds there are small cardboard boxes in which help is requested to cover medical expenses.

"Punctured lung," reads the sign on one of the boxes.

"Bullet in the spine," reads another.

Some of the wounded seemed afraid to say they had been protesting, and a dozen men with gunshot wounds all said they had walked past the demonstration when they were shot.

None of the injured said they had received copies of their medical reports, which would help them understand the origin and proper treatment of their injuries.

Access to this information is a right under Peruvian law, but several people said they believed they were being punished for their involvement with the demonstrations.

Saúl Soncco, 22, lay in a bed, shot in the back, he said, when he was returning home after working as a carpenter.

His brother managed to take a photograph of an x-ray showing a bullet lodged next to his spine.

However, according to the family, hospital officials had told them that he needed to go home.

Hospital director Victor Candia said patients were getting the care they needed.

Boluarte, in an address to the nation on Friday, offered condolences to the families of those killed and described the protesters as involuntary pawns brought to the marches by handlers seeking to overthrow her.

"Some voices, influenced by violence, by radicals, are demanding my resignation," he said, "frightening the people with chaos, disorder and destruction.

To this I answer, responsibly:

I will not resign


Brayan, the 15-year-old, died of a gunshot wound to the head, according to his autopsy.

At his funeral, hundreds of people gathered in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where a protest leader, César Huasaca, shouted for justice, directing his anger at Boluarte.

"Do you think our resolve has waned?

"We are stronger than ever."

"We are 33 million," Huasaca declared.

"What are we going to do? Force them to respect our rights. It's not about the left, it's not about the right, what we want is attention!"

After a mass offered by a priest dressed in a simple white robe, an orchestra followed the coffin onto a plot of land.

There, Jumpiri, Brayan's mother, spoke some of the last words before his burial.

"Dina!" she yelled to the president, her hands clutching Brayan's coffin, her face twisted in pain.

"I am willing to die for my son. I am going to fight, I want justice."

He then issued a challenge: "Dina! Kill me."

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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Source: clarin

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